Four Freedoms of Free Culture

In my endless attempt to explain what’s wrong with Creative Commons’ “non-commercial” and “no derivatives” restrictions, I came across this 2005 article by Benjamin Mako Hill:

Free Software’s fundamental document is Richard Stallman’s Free Software Definitions (FSD) [3]. At its core, the FSD lists four freedoms:

  • The freedom to run the program, for any purpose;
  • The freedom to study how the program works, and adapt it to your needs;
  • The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor;
  • The freedom to improve the program, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits;

…For the CC founders and many of CC’s advocates, FOSS’s success is a source of inspiration. However, despite CC’s stated desire to learn from and build upon the example of the free software movement, CC sets no defined limits and promises no freedoms, no rights, and no fixed qualities. Free software’s success is built upon an ethical position. CC sets no such standard.

This has led to a proliferation of harmful and incompatible CC-NC and CC-ND licensed works, mistakenly labeled “Free.” Mako Hill points out that while Creative Commons pursued its goal of “Balance, compromise, and moderation,” it failed to define or defend any core freedoms. Indeed, there seems to be no concern about what the “Free” in Free Culture means. To most it means, “slightly less restrictive than modern copyright.” Even so, most CC licenses are more restrictive than pre-1970’s copyright (because modern copyright’s extended terms and more draconian punishments for infringements still apply).

Fortunately the Four Freedoms of Free Software easily apply to Culture:

  1. the freedom to use the work and enjoy the benefits of using it
  2. the freedom to study the work and to apply knowledge acquired from it
  3. the freedom to make and redistribute copies, in whole or in part, of the information or expression
  4. the freedom to make changes and improvements, and to distribute derivative works

That’s not so hard, is it?

Ironically I was arguing with Richard Stallman last month about the Free Software Foundation‘s use of -ND licenses on its cultural works. A film they sponsored, Patent Absurdity, has “no derivatives” restrictions even though it could be greatly improved by editing, and clips could be highly beneficial in other works. Freedom #4 FAIL. Even the FSF fails to apply the Four Freedoms to Culture!

Software IS Culture. Many in the Free Software Movement draw a false distinction between “utility” and “aesthetics,” claiming software is useful and culture is just pretty or entertaining. But you never know how a cultural work might prove useful to someone else down the line. If you treat it as non-useful, and restrict it to prevent other uses, then of course it won’t be useful – you’ve restricted its utility through an unFree license.

The Free Software community needs to learn that Software is Culture. The Free Culture community needs to learn that Free is Free.

FREE. CULTURE. It’s not so hard.

Addendum: I consider Richard Stallman a friend. I argue with him, without thinking less of him. I’m grateful he’s his stubborn self. I just happen to not agree with him about restrictive licenses on cultural works.


Author: Nina Paley

Animator. Director. Artist. Scapegoat.

25 thoughts on “Four Freedoms of Free Culture”

  1. When you say “most CC licenses are more restrictive than older copyright”, you mean more restrictive than copyright as it used to be (before modern tightenings and extensions, that is)?

    Not disagreeing, just making sure I understand correctly.

  2. Just popping in to semi-seriously note that, as a software engineer, I would have put this the other way around: “Software IS culture.”

    But your way is probably more right.

  3. “____ failed to define or defend any core freedoms” is _way_ too common.
    Being the exception is the reason the Free Software movement is so inspirational, and it’s exactly why they are so often ridiculed.
    As an adherent to FSFesqe ideals, it feels really good to hear Nina espousing them (and taking RMS to task on same 🙂

    But I’m also imagining (fearing?) a world full of CC vs. QuestionCopyright flame wars on the level of OSS vs FS.

  4. I don’t see how the engine of any program can be considered “culture”. Sure, we can claim that it should be treated (in terms of licensing) the same way as art, but it surely isn’t cultural. What *is* culture are the non-algorithmic parts of software that make up things like images and sounds. This is a difference I think Roger Ebert could have been well served by pointing out. Instead, he just mashed the whole topic into “video games”.

  5. I was heavily influenced by RMS’ view on software, but then also by his three categories (functional works, works of opinion and works of art), but slowly began to realize how those categories are not useful. Benjamin Mako Hill and Rob Myers were both a great help. I attempted to chronicle my journey.

    That was before I stumbled across your work though. You’ve been inspirational in terms of putting a BY-SA business model into practice. I hope I can do the same…

  6. The “aesthetic” versus “utilitarian” distinction is primarily useful in understanding the difference between “free software” and “free culture” _business models_ (I find it to be an extremely enlightening point there). It has little impact on the issues of cultural importance. It certainly does not remove the value of the “four freedoms”.

    Note however that “copying”, “deriving”, etc _ARE_ “uses” and that definitions which start with “1) The freedom to USE the work for any purpose” are actually contradictory with copyleft, since it restricts certain “uses”. This is an issue with the way that Mako Hill writes his “four freedoms” as well as the wording in Debian’s “free software guidelines”.

    Stallman and Moglen’s version — that is to say, the “four freedoms of free software” says “the freedom to _RUN THE PROGRAM_ for any purpose” which is much more specific. For aesthetic works, this concept of “use” can become highly ambiguous.

    This actually came up with regard to the issue of whether it should be legal to distribute free culture items with DRM lock-down. The argument was made that this kind of distribution was a “use” and that it therefore should not be restricted. It was pretty sticky. 🙂

  7. I’m not sure Copyleft should inherently ban DRM, actually. It’s not clear that it does. When I “prohibit” DRM on “Sita,” it’s as an addendum to the -SA license. In action, I don’t expect to use legal enforcement; I simply withhold my Endorsement.

    Even that becomes tricky with things like mobile apps. Are iPhone apps DRMed, exactly?

  8. Peter — I would assert that MediaWiki (the engine that makes Wikipedia possible) is absolutely a cultural artifact. It has a tremendous impact on the evolution of culture because of the social interactions that it enables.

    Digital online environments are a lot like “installation art” — they create a “space” in which certain actions or feelings become evident. A tool like a wiki is more than just a means to do some task which was already done. It is a tool which enables a new way of interacting and thinking collectively. Such “engines” are very much a part of culture.

    Or consider the literal “engines” like the steam engine or the internal combustion engines. These were absolutely cultural artifacts — they enabled entirely new civilizations to arise. They changed the face of economics, politics, and society. I think that’s very much an aspect of “culture.” And software is no different.

  9. Nina — It was, as I say, a very sticky issue.

    The CC licenses do restrict the use of “technical protection mechanisms” or “digital rights management” to prevent legal uses of the work. They do not allow the work to be distributed in a way in which TPM prevents legal uses. There’s a little legal wiggle room here in that it is technically okay to distribute under TPM as long as it does not (for some reason) prevent legal uses.

    I would argue that the GPL version 3, which has language restricting the use of software on machines which use a hardware key to prevent execution of unapproved software, is making essentially the same restriction. And of course, this too was controversial.

    Opponents of these clauses suggested that requiring “parallel distribution” of unencumbered versions of the work would be sufficient, and that a TPM restriction was not necessary.(This would be similar to the “source code” requirements with the GPL).

    Proponents argued that, even in the presence of parallel distribution, there were ways in which the use of TPM prevented general access to the work, creating “platform monopolies”.

    I’m trying to summarize an argument which actually went on for months and took many thousands of words in emails and blog posts and the like. It’s kind of all over now, and truces have been made (Debian voted to allow CC-By and CC-By-SA documentation, as well as GPLv3 programs, for example), but it was a big deal at one time (I’m thinking that was 2005 or 2006, IIRC).

  10. @Terry – funnily enough, before I found the Four Freedoms at, I wrote my own:

    1. The freedom to view, hear, read, or otherwise attend to the Work;
    2. The freedom to study, analyze, and dissect copies of the Work, and adapt it to your needs;
    3. The freedom to redistribute copies so you can help your neighbor;
    4. The freedom to improve the Work, and release your improvements to the public, so that the whole community benefits

    I just assumed these had already been argued to death, and whatever was at had been hashed out already. Maybe I was wrong?

  11. @Nina —

    As with all things in this Asperger’s Ward called the Free Culture Movement, it’s safe to assume — of practically any issue — both that it has been argued to death AND will continue to be, ad infinitum. Issues sort of subside over time, but they could always flare up again.

    I think that most people assume that “use” means “use in ways other than copying and distributing”, but it doesn’t actually _say_ that.

    At least as regards aesthetic works, I like your phrasing of “Freedom 0” better, but it doesn’t fit some niches like software very well, so it’s no longer a generalization of Stallman’s “four freedoms” (Traditionally, due to Richard Stallman being a programmer, the “four freedoms” are numbered 0-3 rather than 1-4. It’s an affectation, but it’s cute and harmless).

    Anyway, the word “use” appeared first in the “Debian Free Software Guidelines” which was the prototype for the “Open Source Definition” (though they now differ slightly), and predates the “Definition of Cultural Works” by several years. FD is really just following suit there.They do have a process for updating their page though — it might be worth submitting your version of the freedoms to them as alternative wording.

    I wonder how many people realize that the original “four freedoms” was from a speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt. I assume Stallman had that in mind when he created his version, though I only learned about Roosevelt’s version this year (maybe this means I am very ignorant of political history, though).

    The wording on the Freedom Defined page is from about 2006 or so, IIRC. I’ve edited some of the explanatory pages myself, though not the freedoms themselves (the little square icons were designed by me, by the way — a generic version of the CC symbols meant to classify existing licenses rather than represent specific branded ones).

    The goal for FD was to fill the niche that many people feel that CC shirked of presenting an ideological vision for free culture rather than merely providing legal tools. It hasn’t been very consistently maintained or marketed, though, so it still on somewhat shaky ground.

  12. Thanks Terry!

    I wonder how many people realize that the original “four freedoms” was from a speech by Franklin D. Roosevelt.

    I had no idea! Got a link?

  13. Nina, you say “Software IS Culture” but then don’t say how. You follow that up with an explanation of how culture has utility (OK) but not how software is aesthetic.

    “But you never know how a cultural work might prove useful […]” doesn’t jive with the introductory statement for that paragraph.


    Terry, you assert that MediaWiki code is a cultural artifact but then simply claim that the software has a big impact on culture. The second statement is true, but it does not have anything to do with your first claim.

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  15. Technology is part of culture. Not only does it have a great effect on the culture, but it also is produced BY a culture, as a cultural artifact. All production from a culture must be viewed as a cultural artifact, and it all says something about and has influence on defining that culture. Certain CULTURES will BUILD different THINGS, like building their houses in a different way or using different factories and so on. No, seriously, regional modifications to technology happen and they happen based on the culture and they are part and parcel of that culture the same way ancient axes are part of Battle Axe culture.

    So yeah. Software is culture.

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